Figures of Advent: Virgin most Powerful

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

Many of Advent’s prophecies speak of our Lord’s coming in power.  They announce seismic changes: the valley filled in, the mountain and hill brought low, the rugged land made plain, and the rough country a broad valley (cf. Is 40:4).  We hear about the One Who “shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples” (Is 2:4).  He comes with vindication (cf. Is 35:4).  Indeed, “Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm” (Is 40:10).

Madonna and Child - by CORNELIS VAN HAARLEMBut when He does arrive, it is not as the Israelites expected.  So different, in fact, that they missed it. So different, that we too might be tempted to think that prophecies of His powerful coming were wrong.  But in fact it is we who are wrong – about the nature of true power.  We associate power with volume and size.  The louder and bigger, the more powerful. Our Lord comes instead in a hidden, simple, small, quiet – indeed, silent – manner.  And yet He comes to us by way of the one we invoke as Virgin Most Powerful.

To call the Virgin Mary powerful would seem odd enough.  After all, she was least powerful in her culture.  She was young, childless, and female – none of which gained standing or authority.  So, when the archangel appeared and saluted her as full of grace, he was speaking to someone powerless in the world’s estimation.  And the moment she conceived she became – if possible – even more powerless.  For her untimely pregnancy exposed her to accusations of adultery and to the punishment for that sin: death.

Still, we invoke her as Virgin Most Powerful.  Because our Lady reveals where true power lies.  We associate her with silence, smallness, and purity.  It is through these that the omnipotent God first entered the world.  And it is through these that He comes again.

First, silence.  We think power is in volume.  We shout to make our point, we blast radios to announce our might.  In contrast, our Lady possesses a deeper, genuine power in her silence.  Despite the angelic choirs and the shepherds coming on the scene, we rightly sense that our Lord’s birth was characterized by silence.  As our carols tell us, the night is silent and, on account of the sleeping Baby, we must be still, still, still. Saint Luke is the first lyricist: “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). We find her not speaking, not making any noise but reflecting, meditating in the silence of Bethlehem.

Silence speaks.  It points us to mysteries that human words cannot encompass or communicate.  In the presence of glory and majesty we shut our mouths.  And in the presence of love.  Lovers do not need to speak: their silent presence to one another communicates enough.  Scripture tells us not only of heaven’s music, but also of its equally important silence (cf. Rev. 8:1).  When the excited shepherds, fresh from an angelic concert, arrive at the stable they encounter the silence of Mary – a silence that points them to the mystery before her.  Before the Word made flesh we realize the insufficiency of our words.

Second, smallness.  Again, we associate power with what is big and large.  We may not like bullies, but we buy into their way of thinking: might makes right.  The bigger the better.  But God works differently. He exalts little Israel over great Egypt, Gideon over the Midianites, and David over Goliath.  With Mary the Lord of Hosts begins the definitive victory of the small over the great.

Mary is small in the sense of being insignificant, possessing no power, no authority – indeed, not even being known.  She lived in a small village in a no account area of a vast empire. Nevertheless, the Lord looked upon Mary, and specifically upon her low estate, humility, and lowliness (cf. Lk 1:48).  It was precisely her smallness that attracted Him.  So her smallness points to another smallness – a greater smallness, if you will.  The smallness of God.  It was by means of Mary’s humility – that powerful spiritual littleness – that God became small Himself, the smallest life in the womb, the Babe in the manger.  Her willingness to be small made room for the Almighty to be small.

Third, purity.  The world associates power with sexual activity.  Men have long identified power with sexual conquests.  Thanks to the sexual license of our culture, women are now “free” to embrace the same delusion.  The freedom to be sexually impure is at the heart of our culture’s view of power. Virginity thus appears as a deprivation rather than a fullness.

Virginity was not prized in ancient Israel either – not for libidinous reasons, but because a virgin could not be the mother of the Messiah, which was the desire of devout Jewish women.  So Mary’s virginity makes her appear even more powerless.

But as the Virgin Mother, Mary in fact manifests the power of purity.  It is not merely that she becomes a mother while remaining a virgin.  Rather, the absolute spiritual and physical self-gift Mary makes by her virginity becomes the means by which salvation enters the world.  Her virginity itself is fecund, life-giving.  An ancient prayer describes Christmas as the “the most holy day on which the spotless virginity of Blessed Mary brought forth a Savior to this world.”  It was her virginity that brought forth the Savior.

What is true for Mary in an exceptional way holds true for all of us more broadly: purity confers a certain life-giving power.  It is the power to give oneself because purity is the full possession of oneself.  It also brings the ability to see and to know.  The mind is cleared of the desires that fog thinking. “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).

In all these things our Lady shows us true power – the power of grace that comes to us always in silence, smallness, and purity.  It is a power not of our making or controlling.  It is God’s work within us, as it was exceptionally within Mary.

We cannot demand or force the working of grace.  We must, rather, wait…silently, humbly, and of pure of heart.

            Virgin Most Powerful, pray for us.

 

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